Leaving Ypsilanti

Nobody uses a phone for conversation anymore. There’s something almost 19th century about it, like delivering letters by horseback. Modern communication happens via social media or text. People fear the intimacy of voices and the obligation that goes with it.

Allen and I used to talk on the phone for hours. Sometimes we discussed politics, or our kids, or our insecurities, but mostly we talked about sex. I was married to someone else, so his words made me nervous. Nevertheless, I loved it. When you’re in your late fifties, erotic attention is in short supply. Husbands get lazy, and compliments grow scarce.

Roy knew about my affair from the beginning. I didn’t think it was fair to lie to him. Though I was honest, I still felt guilty. What woman tells her husband she’s flying 2500 miles to visit her boyfriend for the weekend? What man in his right mind allows such a thing? Roy loved me without reservation. He let me do whatever I wanted.

At first, I lived in Chicago and drove to Michigan to visit Allen. Three years later, Roy and I moved back to Washington state, where we’d first met in 2001. We figured it would kill my relationship with Allen. Besides, we liked trees.

Instead of drifting apart, Allen and I drew closer. Our phone calls continued. We loved the harsh, Midwestern cadence of each other’s voices. Like me, he’d grown up without knowing his biological father. The two of us understood each other like nobody else we knew. And when we did get together, we could never get out of bed.

Allen was a scary boyfriend, though he wasn’t violent. His love-making was intense, punctuated with emotional outbursts. Alcohol played a role, but I suspected he was bipolar. I felt hesitant to pin a label on his behavior. I was a tarot card reader, not a goddamn therapist. Besides, the whole thing was sexy as hell.

Roy shook his head and said, “Well, you always come back to me.” Allen wanted me to leave Roy and live with him, but I never felt tempted. Roy was home. Allen was like a fantasy vacation to Transylvania.

Our last visit began poorly. I knew something was off but couldn’t put my finger on it. As I cooled my heels at Sea-Tac and waited for the Detroit-bound plane, my phone lit up with a text. I opened the message eagerly, expecting something tender, salacious.

Instantly, my hopes were dashed. Allen had missed the last bus from Ann Arbor to the Detroit airport. He was practically the only person in Michigan who didn’t own a car. Allen wasn’t sure how he’d get to the airport to meet my flight. Perhaps Joe, his pot dealer, could drive him from Ypsilanti.

This was a bad omen. I sat on the hard edge of my plastic chair and stared at my phone. Why hadn’t he checked the bus schedule? I planned to rent a car, so I wouldn’t have trouble getting around. Still, I’d hoped Allen would meet me at the airport, like a normal boyfriend. He was usually flakey and unreliable, but this was a new low.

Several minutes later, Allen texted again. His dealer had agreed to drop him off at the airport. I was first relieved, then worried. Joe was one of those folks who thought the government fabricated conspiracies about Sandy Hook as an excuse to take away peoples’ guns. Hopefully he wouldn’t run his car off the road to avoid hitting spacemen. The guy was always stoned out of what was left of his mind.

After I deplaned and wandered toward the waiting area, I spotted Allen instantly. He was visibly shitfaced, even from thirty feet away. Fortunately, Joe was nowhere in sight. Most likely, he was back in his apartment, contentedly smoking bowls and constructing tinfoil hats.

“Hey,” Allen said. “Good to see you. How was your flight?”

After six years in the Pacific Northwest, I had grown accustomed to indoor voices. Midwesterners seemed unnecessarily loud, like they were trying to broadcast over a ceaseless din. Allen was noisy, even for a Michigander, more so when intoxicated. He sounded quieter on the phone.

I accepted a hug from him, then stepped backward. “Let’s rent a car before the counter closes. It’s after midnight already.”

The Alamo agent gave me the keys to a Kia Rio. I unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. Allen reclined beside me, still swaddled in winter clothing. The dashboard thermometer read fifteen degrees. Tiny, constipated snowflakes fell from the sky.

I took a wrong turn and ended up beside a barbed-wire fence in a deserted overflow

parking lot. After several frenzied minutes, I discovered the exit. No one was inside the booth. The cashier was off somewhere, having a cigarette. Five minutes later, she returned, accepted my money, and waved us through the gate.

“Things seem curiously slow here.” My voice sounded priggish and whiny.

Allen shrugged. “I guess.” He stared out the window and hummed. It was a habit he’d picked up recently, one that drove me crazy. “I don’t pay much attention to other people. What’s the point?”

When he wasn’t racked with depression or anxiety, Allen fancied himself a modern Zen lunatic, able to shrug off life’s imperfections with panache. This affectation was irritating as hell. As we rolled down the freeway towards Ypsilanti, he turned towards me and smiled lasciviously. “I can’t wait to get home,” he announced. “I have some surprises for you.”

Despite myself, I felt both nervous and titillated. Two winters beforehand, during better times, Allen’s surprise involved a $40 bottle of wine, a tube of lavender oil, and an elaborate masseuse fantasy. He’d inherited money and was in celebration mode. Since then, he’d burned through two jobs and most of his cash.

The man’s saving grace was his erotic imagination. It had gotten us through lean times before. “Only a few more miles,” I said. Squirming in my seat, I smiled at Allen.

Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up in front of his building. It was an early 20th century wooden structure, one of those family homes that landlords like to divide into tiny student apartments. Allen’s place was on the second floor, furthest end of a narrow hallway.

Though he was in his late forties, Allen possessed a student’s minimalist ethos. He’d once been married to a gorgeous nurse who earned big bucks at a nearby hospital, but his stock had fallen considerably since then.

The spartan, colorless apartment smelled faintly of marijuana. Once inside, Allen switched on his kitchen laptop. He was the only person I knew who kept a desk in the kitchen. Probably because he ate all his meals in bars.

The screen remained stubbornly dark. Allen pressed the on/off button a few more times. He hated to have sex without musical accompaniment. “I can’t imagine what the hell is wrong with my computer,” he grumbled. “I made a whole setlist for us.”

“We can use my laptop and listen to YouTube,” I said, trying to console him.

Allen shook his head. “I don’t have the Internet password for the building.” It was a shared password, and the residents took turns paying the monthly bill. Allen had never bothered to write it down.

We fired up my laptop anyway, attached it to Allen’s battered plastic speakers, pulled some CDs out of a case. Despite our success, Allen appeared agitated. “I don’t know what I did with that pot I brought from Joe,” he fumed. He opened and closed his desk drawers, repeatedly, but the marijuana stayed hidden.

I felt sorry for him. In Washington, we used the word “cannabis.” If a bag disappeared, we went to the corner store and bought another. The concept of a pot dealer seemed quaint. Michigan was set to vote on legalization in a few months, but that wouldn’t help us now.

“Forget it,” I suggested, strolling into the bathroom. When I emerged a few minutes later, Allen lunged from the shadows and kissed me awkwardly. His head looked huge, like a shark’s. Grabbing one of my hands, he pulled me into his bedroom. “Did that surprise you?” he asked.

We had sex, but my mind was elsewhere. It was a far cry from our usual shenanigans. The music stopped abruptly. As Allen fell asleep, I struggled to get comfortable. His mattress had developed a deep pit in the center. The bed was perfect when he purchased it a couple of years beforehand. What had happened since then?

In the morning, I drank coffee while Allen watched. I was a caffeine slave, but he wasn’t. Alcohol was his true sweetheart. He was usually hungover and distracted during the early hours, and today was no exception. “What would you like to do?” he asked.

“Let’s go to Detroit.” The conviction in my voice surprised me. I sounded exactly like a person who wanted to experience the splendors of Detroit in December.

“Whatever you want,” Allen agreed. He was never one to argue. We wandered outside, buckled ourselves into my rental car. The phallic-shaped Ypsilanti water tower loomed ahead. Allen’s apartment was only a block away. If I craned my neck, I could see the tower from his bedroom window. It added to the drama.

On I-94, cars moved toward Detroit in a desultory fashion, like they didn’t care if they ever arrived. Allen groped in his backpack and carefully extracted a CD. I noticed his left pinky finger was permanently bent. He’d developed trigger finger a few years earlier, and the problem steadily worsened. Allen claimed he’d overextended his digits on guitar frets, but I’d heard the condition was caused by heavy drinking.

We passed the airport and entered the city limits. Burned-out buildings lined both sides of the freeway. Most of them had been boarded up years beforehand, so squatters couldn’t get inside. The bleak, depressing landscape reminded me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Detroit’s devastation had been caused by human neglect instead of nature. Somehow this made it worse.

I felt a sudden desire to visit the Gibraltar Trade Center. For decades, the enormous flea market offered every cut-rate product imaginable—Oriental rug knock-offs, velvet paintings, clocks with illuminated waterfalls, Harley Davidson jackets. When I lived in the Midwest, I spent many hours wandering through the main building, gaping at the kitschy merchandise.

The Center also hosted weekly events—car shows, gun and knife exhibits, holistic festivals, and computer fairs staffed by pimply young guys, eager to cut deals on five-year-old Dell laptops. The place was pure Michigan. Sadly, it had gone out of business in 2016.

I didn’t intend to shop, anyway. I wanted to gawk at Gibraltar Man, an imposing metal statue of a 19th century fellow dressed in bowler hat, bow tie, and spats. Years beforehand, a construction team had bolted him to the far edge of the Center’s parking lot. His ever-smiling visage loomed several stories above I-94, imploring passing motorists to purchase cheap wares.

Michigan residents didn’t understand my love for Gibraltar Man. Their indifference made me sad. He was at least as iconic as Seattle’s Hat and Boots, a beloved landmark salvaged from the wrecking ball years beforehand. What would become of Gibraltar Man now?

I found the Mt. Clemens exit and approached the Center. Its vast lot was completely devoid of cars. Allen stared at the windshield as I navigated across the cracked asphalt. We parked beside one of the Man’s high-buttoned shoes. It was taller than both of us put together. His perpetually beckoning, outstretched hand towered overhead.

“Isn’t Gibraltar Man magnificent?” I asked.

“Sure,” Allen agreed. He scooped a metal rectangle from the concrete, brushed away a few snowflakes. The word “knife” was stamped across the surface in bold, no-nonsense letters. “Looks like somebody dropped a memento of the gun and knife show.” He tossed the sign on the ground. “I don’t think they’ll return for it.”

The wind blew harder. I shivered inside my thin coat and smiled weakly at Allen. “Can you pose for some photos?” I asked. “I’ll add them to my ever-growing Gibraltar Man collection.”

Obligingly, Allen leaned against a shoe and stared at the camera. “Hurry up,” he implored. He looked somber and bored. At least he was dressed for the chill. His puffy winter coat was bright yellow, like he intended to go deer hunting later.

I snapped some shots and returned the phone to my purse. Relieved, Allen clambered into the car. I fired up the engine and blasted the heat. “I’m hungry,” I lamented. “Where can we get something to eat? There’s nothing around here except Subway.”

“Let’s go back to Ypsi,” Allen suggested. “There’s a place a couple of blocks from my apartment with decent food.”

“Decent food” was code for alcohol. A beer sounded fine to me, maybe two. Undoubtedly Allen would order several mixed drinks. He drank quickly, so we finished around the same time. Though I possessed a healthy appetite, he always ate twice as much. Whatever it was, the guy could put it away.

The restaurant was one of those family-style places that becomes adults-only at 10 PM. Allen recognized the server and waved her over. “How’s it going?” he asked in a jocular tone. His voice had grown louder in anticipation of a drink, yet trembly, like he was doing his utmost to hold himself together until then.

The server sighed. She was about thirty, plump and pale, with tight stretch pants and a stained black apron. “Tonight’s dead. I can’t wait to leave. How you doing?”

Allen pressed his back against the booth and smiled. “Just fine. I’ll take a vodka tonic while I’m looking at the menu.”

Minutes later, the server returned with the drink and set it firmly on the table. “Hey, you’re doing a terrific job,” Allen said, with more fervor than seemed necessary. She shrugged. Allen took a spasmodic gulp from his glass. “Have you decided what you want?” he asked me.

A salad was the safest bet. I ordered, reclined in the booth and watched Allen drink. He downed his glass and signaled for another. When his burger arrived, he was already on his third vodka tonic. His laughter had developed an unhinged quality, like he was trying way too hard to enjoy himself.

Obviously, the server had witnessed his behavior before. She tossed the check on the table and smirked. “You’re a great waitress,” Allen said.

“Thanks,” she replied, turning away.

We stumbled toward the car and drove to Allen’s apartment. He walked unsteadily upstairs, unlocked his door and wandered into the kitchen. “She’s cute, but you’re beautiful,” he slurred. “Come here.”

Mollified, I snuggled against Allen. He placed his hands on my hips and gave them a gentle squeeze. “You drive me crazy,” he said. “No one ever made me feel like you do.”

Allen had uttered this proclamation many times. I raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Really? Don’t you have other girlfriends?”

“I haven’t slept with anyone in two years, since Molly.” He’d made the same claim for many months. “Of course, she’s dating women now.”

Molly was a married, polyamorous sex therapist. Allen picked her up at the Tap Room in 2011. He found all his women at the Tap Room. Her husband once bought Allen a pizza there. He sounded like an affable fellow. Molly seemed affable too, though we had never met.

In the morning, Allen kissed me, then stood above the bed, swaying. “I don’t know when we’ll see each other again,” he said. “I’m sorry I can’t go with you to the airport.”

My boyfriend’s job involved processing financial aid applications for the University of Michigan. It was a temporary gig, with no wiggle room for sick days or vacations. The poor man was already late for his shift. Allen wandered toward his front door and stood with his hand on the knob. His pale face sagged with sadness and anxiety.

I shrugged. “It’s okay, Allen. I’ll miss you. I always do.” I rose from the mattress and piled on two layers of clothing, feeling like I had already left town.

After a minute, I wandered over toward the window and watched as Allen made his way to the bus stop. His retreating back formed a comical yellow dot against the snow. I’d have plenty of time to miss him after I got home. Despite my ambivalence, I didn’t trust myself to stay away from Allen forever. Once our phone calls began again, I’d be a goner.

The snow was falling so hard that I couldn’t see the water tower. It was way past time for me to get the hell out of Ypsilanti. The drive to the Romulus airport would be slow and treacherous, and I’d be lucky to make my flight.

On the plane, I pondered the nature of Allen’s dysfunction, trying to understand why he seemed crazier than usual. His alcoholism had grown worse, but there was another factor at play, something I couldn’t quite pinpoint. He often seemed as though he was clutching his sanity like remnants of tattered clothing. The torn edges barely covered his body.

Allen’s tenuous grip had grown weaker since his mother’s death, five years beforehand. Surely there was a name for his condition, something more definitive than simple depression.

After stewing for a week, I decided to send Molly an email. Undoubtedly, she’d heard plenty about me over the years and would recognize my name on her screen. I hoped she wouldn’t delete the note without reading it. Why would she want to discuss the mental health of an ex-boyfriend? Such an act might even violate professional standards. Still, it was worth a try.

I didn’t have a problem locating Molly’s Facebook page, though I hadn’t looked at it since 2014. Her bulbous face stared back at me from the screen. She was nearly twenty years younger than I was, and well-fed. Allen told me once that her husband made a quarter of a million dollars a year.

Molly had wrapped a leather bracelet around her wrist, then clenched her hand into a fist and bared her teeth at the camera. It was an old photo. I’d seen it before and wondered who’d been on the other side of the camera. I was willing to bet the photographer wasn’t her husband.

The letter flowed from my keys like automatic writing. I’d visited Allen recently, and his psychological equilibrium seemed off. As an ex-girlfriend and licensed therapist, could Molly explain his behavior? Perhaps offer a diagnosis? I was deeply concerned.

I thanked Molly and clicked the “send” button. Hopefully she wouldn’t tell Allen about my letter. I’d hate to hurt his feelings when he was in such a fragile mental state. On the other hand, she’d probably think I was the crazy one.

An hour later, my phone lit up with Molly’s reply. My message had arrived while she was buying dinner for Allen. The timing was uncanny. She’d inquired about me earlier that evening, and he insisted he hadn’t seen me in years.

My note arrived two hours after her query and blew Allen’s alibi to bits. After a public row, Allen dashed from the restaurant and fled into the street. Molly picked up the tab, as she always did, then went home to her husband.

She was furious with both of us. I had ruined her Christmas. Molly loved Allen and didn’t appreciate hearing the truth. Though his erotic practices sometimes made her squeamish, theirs was the best sex she’d experienced. In fact, it was hotter now than ever.

Roy said I’d hear from Allen soon, but I knew better. The asshole had been caught red-handed by both of his girlfriends, and he hated confrontation. The last thing he wanted to do was explain himself to either of us.

My analysis proved correct. Like a jackrabbit at a shooting range, Allen disappeared without a trace. He had deactivated his Facebook page years beforehand, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg was evil. I sent angry emails, left imploring voice messages, but he never responded.

Though five months have passed, the pain hasn’t gotten any better. That “time heals” maxim is a crock. Each day I check my phone and email, to no avail. After all, I blew Allen’s cover. That asshole had everything—a fantasy girlfriend from another state, and a rich hometown gal who paid for his meals and gave him sex every weekend.

I recall my last glimpse of Allen’s face as he stared at my body on his mattress. Then I remind myself what a boor he was during our last visit. Sometimes this works, but never for long. My undisciplined brain insists upon remembering better times. I guess I’m just a sucker for compliments.

I remind myself that I’m married, and only a glutton expects to have two adoring men. Allen wanted two adoring women, so we aren’t so different. Still, at least I was honest. Allen could have told Molly and me the truth, but it was more fun to lie. Like the greedy dog in the Aesop’s fable, he wanted both bones, but wound up with none.

Supposedly, it helps to enumerate the days after a breakup. You need to count them in your head. When enough days have passed, the pain evaporates, as if by magic. At least, that’s what I’ve heard, but I have my doubts.

One week, two. I count to twenty, lose my place, start over again. Baby steps. Perhaps numbers really can heal, if I keep good enough track of them. After all, I’ve got nothing but time.